Thank you, Foreign Minister Nin Novoa, for chairing this meeting, and for Uruguay’s leadership in its first presidency on the Council.
I also thank the Secretary-General for his briefing to the Council today and his being here, which is testament to the serious challenges facing the region – a reality underscored by his appropriately bleak briefing.
My remarks today will focus on three parts of the region: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Syria, and Lebanon.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we remain very concerned about the impact that terrorism and ongoing violence have on Israelis and Palestinians and by the lack of progress toward a two-state solution.
The United States strongly condemns terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians. These include the attack on 24-year-old Shlomit Krigman, who was stabbed yesterday outside a supermarket and died earlier this morning; another woman, age 58, was also stabbed and wounded in the attack. They also include Dafna Meir, a mother of six children, who was stabbed to death in her home on January 17th while trying to defend her kids, as we heard earlier. These and other reprehensible and inexcusable attacks against innocent civilians underscore the critical importance of affirmative steps to stop incitement, restore calm, reduce tensions, and bring an end to the violence on both sides.
We also condemn Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and their property in the West Bank, such as the appalling 2015 attack that killed three members of the Dawabsheh family in Duma – father Sa’ad, mother Reham, and their 18-month-old boy, Ali Sa’ad – and badly burned their other four-year-old son.
There is absolutely no justification for any of these acts of terrorism. We all must condemn them – consistently and unequivocally.
The United States continues to stress the need for fair judicial processes for all, to bring to justice all perpetrators of violence and acts of terrorism. The recent indictments brought by the Israeli government against the terrorists who perpetrated the Duma attack represent a positive step, but more must be done to ensure that those responsible for such attacks are held accountable. It is also incumbent on the Palestinian Authority to do all it can to counter incitement to violence and to continue to press for calm.
In addition, in dealings with civilians and peaceful protests on both sides, it is critical that every possible effort be taken to show restraint, guard against the loss of life, and de-escalate tensions.
The United States strongly opposes settlement activity, including some steps Israel has taken this month. We are deeply concerned about reports of a declaration of more than 370 acres in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank as state land. We are also deeply concerned about recent steps that appear to have effectively created a new settlement south of Gush Etzion. Some 70 percent of the West Bank’s Area C has already been unilaterally designated as Israeli state land, or as being within the boundaries of Israeli regional settlement councils. Steps aimed at advancing the Israeli settlement project – including changing the designation of land, issuing building tenders, and constructing new settlements – are fundamentally incompatible with the two-state solution and raise legitimate questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.
That concern notwithstanding, let me make crystal clear – as has Secretary Kerry and other U.S. government officials on multiple occasions – that settlement activity can never itself be an excuse for violence – never.
The United States is also following with concern the demolitions and evictions that have been undertaken by Israeli authorities in several locations throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On January 21st, 16 people – six of them children – were displaced when Israeli authorities demolished four homes in Jabal al Baba, a village which lies within the area known as “E1.” These actions reflect an ongoing trend of demolition, displacement, and land confiscation that continues to undermine prospects for a two-state solution.
Also alarming are the grave humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, where Gazans face extraordinary challenges in their daily lives. This month, UNRWA launched a $403 million appeal to meet urgent humanitarian needs in the West Bank and Gaza, such as emergency food and medical aid, and we all must do our part to make sure these needs are met. We urge all Member States concerned about the conditions in which Palestinians live to join the United States in contributing to UNRWA’s appeal and assisting those in need.
As we have repeatedly made clear, we continue to look to both sides to demonstrate with actions and policies a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. To that end, Quartet Envoys traveled to the region last month to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leadership to explore ways to preserve a two-state solution, and the Envoys will meet again early next month in Europe.
We also encourage the parties to take steps to address the issues underlying these challenges, such as opening Gaza border crossing points, streamlining the civilian workforce, addressing infrastructure needs, and promoting broader economic recovery. Preventing the supply of illicit arms to Gaza is crucial, as is supporting a process that results in the Palestinian Authority’s effective control of Gaza.
We understand the enormous political challenges involved in grappling with these tough issues on both sides, particularly in a climate of increased security threats, terrorism, and distrust. But as we have seen, the passage of time will only make these tough issues harder, not easier, to resolve, and we encourage leaders to take steps that will preserve the possibility of two states and further prospects for peace.
On Syria, we continue to be horrified by the immeasurable human suffering caused by the country’s brutal conflict. We’ve spoken repeatedly here and elsewhere about the atrocities and inhumane conditions that the Syrian people have been forced to endure, all of them man-made. And yet the situation just keeps getting worse.
According to the Secretary-General’s most recent report, an estimated 13.5 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, 1.3 million people more than in 2014. Six million of those in need are children, nearly a million more than a year ago. Six million children. As a Council, these numbers beg the question: With all that we know about the dire situation of the Syrian people, and with all of the resolutions we’ve adopted in this chamber aimed at addressing this humanitarian catastrophe – how can it be that these numbers just continue to rise?
The conditions are particularly abysmal in besieged areas, where, according to the UN, nearly 400,000 people are waging a daily struggle to merely survive. The Secretary-General’s report describes UN access to these areas as “pitiful;” less than one percent of civilians in besieged areas received food aid per month in 2015, and only three percent received health assistance.
We’ve all seen the ghastly consequences of these sieges in reports on the 40,000 people trapped in Madaya.
An anesthesia technician who works in Madaya’s medical clinic – a clinic that had to be moved to a basement after the aboveground facility was bombed – told a reporter that he had started to give the most malnourished children syrupy medicines, for the sugar so that the kids could have some sugar.
Maleka Jabir, an 85-year-old woman in the city, told a reporter she was so stricken by hunger and health problems, that “I don’t go anywhere. I just crumple up and stay in bed.”
Parents told aid workers that they were giving their children sleeping pills, so that they would be spared being kept awake by hunger pains.
If you have not seen the haunting photos of these children, you must force yourself to look at them and see the anguish being inflicted on the most vulnerable among us. We have a collective responsibility to hear their pleas.
Yet while the suffering in besieged areas has been vehemently condemned around the world, the parties to the conflict just continue to block humanitarian aid from reaching those in need, and here I stress particularly the Syrian regime.
According to the Secretary-General’s report, of the 15 besieged areas, two of them are besieged by armed opposition groups, one by ISIL, and 12 of the 15 by the Assad regime – a regime that sits here, at the United Nations, as a Member State. Out of a total of 113 interagency convoy requests that the UN sent, this UN Member State approved and completed only 13. That’s 13 out of 113 approved and completed – that means 100 out of 113 dire requests last year were not completed. And with 80 of the requests, the Assad regime – a UN Member State, again – did not even bother to respond to the United Nations within three months. This is not an isolated practice – applied in one place for a limited period of time – it is part of a deliberate, systematic strategy aimed at killing and displacing civilians.
Now it is true that a handful of convoys carrying food and medical assistance have been able to reach Madaya over the last few weeks, and we commend the brave staff of the UN and international humanitarian groups and local actors who have pressed relentlessly for the delivery of life-saving aid. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that starving people in besieged areas will now survive – much, much more aid is needed. And fewer than two dozen people in serious need of medical treatment – who the UN has told us will die if they don’t get out – only a subset of the 400 identified have been evacuated from Madaya, and specialized medical and nutrition teams have been denied reentry, having paid brief visits before.
The February 4th conference in London – where the U.S. delegation will be led by Secretary Kerry – provides an opportunity for the international community to fill the growing gaps in the UN’s funding humanitarian appeals for Syria, and we urge all Member States to put forward robust pledges aligned with the rising needs of the Syrian people. But the mobilization of funds has to be accompanied by a much more aggressive mobilization of political pressure on those who are cruelly blocking aid from reaching desperate civilians and families.
We also must not forget that starving people to death is far from the only form of suffering the parties are inflicting on civilians. The Syrian regime continues to drop barrel bombs on civilian areas – which reportedly killed at least 12 children in December, and maimed many more. And the Syrian regime continues to carry out air strikes like the one that hit a crowded market in Jisreen on December 4th, killing some 26 civilians. The regime does not act alone, as we know. It has the help of powerful supporters, including Russia. Credible monitoring organizations have documented the effects of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, which continue to target opposition groups and have killed many hundreds of people – the vast majority of them in non-ISIL-controlled areas and with no connection to ISIL whatsoever.
In Deir az Zour, not only has ISIL besieged the city, but the group also has reportedly executed and abducted hundreds of civilians. The Secretary-General’s report described one video released by ISIL in December which showed six civilians being executed after being accused of collaborating with the Syrian regime. The UN reported that the executioners appear to be children under the age of 15.
All of this suffering and barbarity underscores the urgency of working toward a political solution. And to that end, we welcome Staffan de Mistura’s issuing invitations today for the talks to begin this coming Friday in Geneva. The initiation of UN-facilitated Syrian negotiations to reach a political transition, in accordance with the Geneva Communique, is a critical step toward ending the conflict in Syria. We are encouraged that the High Negotiations Committee assembled a broad representation of the Syrian opposition, and has demonstrated a genuine commitment to participating in this political process.
Finally, let me turn very briefly to Lebanon. This Council has stressed repeatedly that the Lebanese people deserve – and indeed require – a fully-functioning government to safeguard Lebanon from the threat of ISIL and other terrorist groups, as well as to address the country’s significant economic challenges – including those accruing by virtue of them hosting more than one million Syrian refugees, giving Lebanon the highest per capita refugee concentration in the entire world. As Lebanese discussions over the presidency continue, we support adherence to the constitutional process to elect a president, not any one candidate. It is critical that Lebanon’s leaders respect the government’s policy of disassociation from regional conflicts, first enshrined in the June 2012 Baabda Declaration. As this Council has emphasized for years, Lebanon should focus on strengthening its institutions, resolving difficult internal disputes, and building up the rule of law – and not become involved in Syria’s civil war.
I thank you, Mr. President.
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